One of the immediate challenges of being an American abroad is defending your country. I love America. I am grateful for it. But I also recognizes its countless faults, its many injustices, and as a person of color, I know these injustices far too well. From the institutionalized racism and sexism to the prison industrial complex, I am no stranger to the darker side of the United States.
While in America (for most of my life), I have been extremely critical of the government. From its founding in 1776 to the present, I recognize the darker history that goes untaught in US public schools, how the US has been part of and responsible for the suffering felt throughout the world and within its own borders. As the supposed leader of the free world, we are often times a living paradox. While in America, I was constantly exhausted, and that was largely because of the color of my skin. I was exhausted from being oppressed. Part of that was my constant participation in protest, civil disobedience, and engaging in debate that would try to express my anger, and the debates did not always lead to positive outcomes. Sometimes, I hated America. Sometimes, I was too angry and frustrated to love it.
And yet, I learned to love America. I loved America for its people, its culture, for bringing my parents together, and for many other reason. I love America, and perhaps it does not love me in return, at least not to the same extent, but I still love it. To say our relationship is complicated is to put it lightly, but I love it because it is part of who I am, and as much as America may deny it, I am part of (it) as well.
Coming to the UK only complicated our relationship. As I began to meet students from around the world and the UK, so began the critique of America. I got constant questions about our prison system, our politics (especially about our “crazy” Republicans), and so on. However, the questions I got tended to be about why the US had it so wrong. Sometimes, I even got that we were so “backwards” with how we ran things (read, how our government ran things).
My responses would typically be in the form of a nod, “you’re right”, or a silent confused look of “I don’t know”. In America, my peers and I would engage in hours of debate on the prison industrial complex, racial, gender, and economic inequality, and our American “Messiah Complex” – arguments on how we couldn’t keep our noses out of world affairs. I even had these debates with my fellow Marshalls, a memorable one in DC during lunch. I was no stranger to critiquing my country.
But suddenly, I felt defensive. I had a double impulse. On one side of my brain, I couldn’t agree more with my new English/International peers. But the other side was telling me to shake my head and defend my country, defend who I was. I was having a mini existential crisis.
Being in America gives you the freedom to critique it without end (play on words?) In my circles back home, this was the case – there was little reason to defend the US government and its actions. But abroad, a critique on the US government was also a critique on its people, and on me. But what was I to do?
Even in instances where I wanted to bring up the good of America, I was at odds with myself. During one conversation, I brought up the Constitution and how brilliant of a document it was, while thinking in the back of my mind the context in which it was written (by slave owners and men who thought women shouldn’t vote). Perhaps I was too critical for my own good.
With every conversation I had, the image of Will McAvoy on the show “The Newsroom” came up – the first scene where he responds to why America is the greatest country in the world by giving every reason it isn’t. The other two panelists in the scene say “Opportunity and Diversity” & “Freedom and Freedom” are what make America great. If you watch the clip, Will goes off on a rant about how America isn’t the greatest, giving a slew of reason as to why (watch the clip, its amazingly performed). And to be fair, he then states how American can be the greatest.
My issue isn’t that I don’t love America, I do, and I’m learning more everyday what it means to be American (if you want to discover that part of your identity, leave the US). My issue is this: how do I defend a country that has done so much wrong (from my perspective), both in the world and to its own citizens. It doesn’t help that our government (or better said, Tea Party Republicans) has shutdown all because some don’t agree with the Affordable Care Act (which was made law by Congress and held to be constitutional by SCOTUS). I’ve gotten questions about that as well – my responses are short – “I just don’t know what they’re thinking” and go back into a silent, ominous pondering.
I want to end on a positive note, but right now, I can’t. I’m still searching for answers. I want to defend my country, because it is irrevocably part of who I am. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do that, but rest assured, I’m exploring how.